The wines of Mot et Chandon, with Benot Gouez
Geeky Champagne talk with the chef de cave of one of the regions most important producers

 

Champagne is a technical wine. A wine geeks playground. So it was great to be able to taste a range of wines from Mot et Chandon, arguably Champagnes most famous producer, with chef de cave Benot Gouez. Rather than give a sales pitch and talk about the romance of Champagne, he was happy to talk technical. For many, this sort of information is arcane, but I just love it.

These days Mot Brut Imperial is kept an extra three months between disgorgement and shipment, with no bottles in the hands of consumers until 6 months after disgorgement. A classic dosage of just below 9 g/litre is used. When Benot arrived in 1998 the dosage was 13 g/litre as a rule.'We trialled it and found we preferred 11 g,' he says,'But we kept 13 g for customers.'

 

For the Mot vintage, dosage was reduced from 11 g in 1998, to 9 g in 2000, to 5 g in 2002. It has been kept at that level since then. Benot has tried 2/3 g dosage, but the wines age too fast. 'Sugar is a preservative,' he says, 'even a little bit of it.'

'I don't think low dosage makes a Champagne better,' he says. 'It is a question of harmony. But we have had several vintages with good maturity, and we have more and more reserve wines.'

 

'Dosage is not just sweetening wine,' says Benot. 'It is adding wine plus SO2 plus sugar.' Disgorgement is an oxidative trauma: suddenly the wine gets a bit of oxygen. 'Without SO2 and sugar, the wine declines very fast. Low dosage wines decline very fast. Dosage is more complicated than a sugar component. People in Champagne haven't been keen to discuss dosage but it is a crucial factor. The more mature the Champagne, the more unusual the disgorgement.'

Yields are often a talking point when it comes to Champagne. If the maximum yield allowed in Champagne is 10 tons/hectare in a particular vintage, a grower can harvest 15 and keep the extra in reserve to compensate for a year low in quality. The agronomic yield is what is picked; the economic yield is what is picked for bottling in order to sell. It makes it possible to build up reserves, so when a year like 2003 comes along with lower yields, you can ask to use the reserve wine from another year for bottling. 'Champagne is based on consistency in quality, consistency in volume and consistency of price, says Benot.

So of late, following some good vintages, there are more reserve wines in the blend, which helps contribute to the lower dosage. 'The quality of the reserve wine is critical,' says Benoit. 'If the reserve wine is oxidative, then the wines can be heavy.'

'NV is 90% of production of Champagne, and it is the priority.' states Benot. 'The quality of reserve wines has become imperative.' The blend is now across three years, and Benot is not looking to use old reserve wines because he wants to keep the wine fruity with no oxidative notes. The brioche character comes from two years in the cellar.

 

Vintage wines are selected as the most interesting wines from the harvest, without thinking about house style. 'The idea is freedom to create more variation from one harvest to another,' says Benoit. Since 2000, there has been a decision to release the vintage at 7 years rather than 5. This latest release, the 2006, follows straight on from 2005, which wasn't very good in Champagne. 'It's difficult to make people realise that there's no connection between Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne vintages,' adds Benot. In 2005 there was lots of botrytis on the Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, but not the Chardonnay, so the possibility remains that there could be very good Blanc de Blancs from 2005, although generally its a year where the wines lacked freshness and precision, and can age fast.

2006 was a year of contrasts. A cold winter was followed by a rainy spring, and hail in June, giving some heterogeneity in the vineyards. July was warm and August rainy: it was up and down all season. The year was saved by September, which was warm with cold nights, no rain, and some wind to dry out the botrytis.

Harvest was spread out and the result is quite harmonious, with a 10.2 average alcohol level and acidity just below 7 g/litre. Chardonnay was the ripest and the cleanest, but also lowest in acidity (6.5, whereas Pinot Noir was 6.8 and Meunier 7.2).

Each year a small proportion of the vintage is bottles under cork rather than crown cap. 'For bottles we want to keep more than 20 years we use cork,' says Benoit. At the end of the 1960s Champagne houses began to use crown caps with a liner made of cork. But it took people 20 years to realise that these crown caps were allowing more oxygen transmission, plus variation, plus cork taint. Since 1993 Moet have been using cork for a small batch of each vintage. 'Now we are using just microagglomerates for the vintage,' says Benot. 'It is not about reducing costs; it is a quality move.'

The longer you leave the wine on lees the more you add complexity, and also the more you build up the ageing potential. If you do disgorgement right then the more ageing potential the wine has, he says. I think it is a microoxygenation that works like a vaccination, but this is just my idea. I am not good at chemistry, but Champagnes kept on their lees for a long time tend to stay in good shape for longer.

THE WINES

Champagne Mot et Chandon Brut Imperial NV
This is the second bottling based on 2010, with a July 2013 disgorgment. Subtle toast, nuts and pears on the nose with bright citrus fruit on the palate. Lively and has a bit of complexity and precision. 88/100

Champagne Mot et Chandon Vintage 2006
Disgorged March 2013 (this will be the first time that the disgorgement date is on all the bottles). 42% Chardonnay, 39% Pinot Noir, 19% Pinot Meunier. Fruity and rich with peach, pear and spice nose,together with some nice toastiness. The palate is fresh with nice subtle toast notes and citrus and white peach fruit. Nicely complex with lovely mouthfeel, this is a bit of a bargain. 93/100

1999 was similar in some ways to 2006, but the Meunier was much riper. Big harvest of 19 tons/hectare.

Champagne Mot et Chandon Vintage 1999
38%Pinot Noir, 31& Chardonnay, 31% Pinot Meunier. Disgorged 2008, 6 g/l dosage. Full yellow colour. Sweet toast and citrus nose leads to a powerful palate with a hint of mushroom and umami savouriness. Rich toasty, peach and pear notes, but this is still focused and fresh with a sweet vanilla/brioche character, as well as crme brulee. 93/100

Champagne Mot et Chandon Vintage 1985 (from magnum)
Higher in acidity, 8.7 g/l, plus more Pinot Noir (50%, with a quarter each of the other varieties. Low yielding year of 7/tons/ha because of winter frosts that killed lots of vines. Disgorged in 2002 after 17 years on the lees. Lively, fruity and appley with herbs and spices. Tangy, citrussy and bright with brightness and precision. Concentrated, showing notes of figs, herbs and subtle whisky, as well as vanilla and toast richness. This has a nice savoury edge. 94/100

See also:

Champagne Charles Heidsieck
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne vertical
Focus on Grower Champagnes

Wines tasted 01/14  
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